A chance meeting during a simple walk along the Abu Dhabi Corniche provides some food for thought.
Cookies, cobwebs and a very February state of mind
This February marks my second go-round with "winter" as a hypothetical concept, rather than a reality that involves too many layers of clothes, permanently chilly feet and an endless desire to stay in bed with the shades pulled. I've spent decades wondering how it is that the shortest month on the calendar can be the longest month in my psyche and I've never come up with an answer. No doubt my friends in New York are wondering this, too, as a winter storm pummels their city this weekend.
Last February, I revelled in the novelty of wearing open-toed sandals all month long, delighting in the joy of a fully visible pedicure in a month that, for most of my life, I devoted to thick socks and waterproof boots.
This year, however, as the novelty of year-round summer pales a bit, I've realised that maybe "February" has rooted in my mind in a way that has nothing to do with boots or mittens or vast slush puddles that stretch inconveniently across busy intersections. I've been feeling the winter blues, a strong case of the "what's it all about anyways", a kind of Jimmy Carter-esque malaise that as much as I'd like, I can't blame on the weather.
In an effort to get out of my own head, I've started doing that middle-aged lady thing: I walk. Two or three days a week, I meet different friends for a power-walk along the Corniche, that lovely blue-paved path that follows the curve of the waterfront in what passes for "downtown" Abu Dhabi - our city that doesn't really have a city centre. I'm not saying that my friends are middle-aged ladies. No, just me, walking, walking, walking right out of my late-mid-40s into the decade-that-shall-not-be-named.
I refuse to sally forth into the unnameable decade with that dang baby weight still clinging to my bones. Especially since "the baby" is ... er ... now 8 years old. Thus? I walk. Briskly.
I love the walks. I'm a New Yorker by adoption if not by birth and can happily walk for miles. An hour or so spent in the fresh air with a friend goes a long way towards blowing away the grey and grimy cobwebs in my mind.
The other day, I was out with my friend B, and as we came to the end of our walk we passed two women sitting together on a bench. Their head scarves were tucked tightly under their chins, their sneakered feet planted in front of them, and between them on the bench, they'd set up a little picnic: a Thermos of coffee and small cups, a little plastic container of home-baked treats.
We nodded and said good morning to one another, with the virtuously smug smiles of those who have got up early to exercise. B said something about the nice picnic, and the woman said, "Please, join us, we have more than enough." She held out the container, which held two kinds of little cookies, and asked if we'd like coffee, as well.
Her name was S and she'd moved to Abu Dhabi from Jordan 39 years ago; her friend J was from Syria and had arrived more recently. I wondered about the path that led J from Syria to a bench on the Corniche, but I didn't ask, for fear of bringing up memories that might disturb her quiet morning of walking, coffee and cookies. The cookies were spiced with cardamom and filled with dates - little mouthfuls of deliciousness that S said she made herself. They walk here every morning, she said, but they don't always bring the cookies.
B and I finished our cookies, said our shukrans and ma'a salamas, and went on our way.
As encounters go this one certainly wasn't Earth-shattering; it didn't redefine my understanding of the Syrian conflict, or relations between Jordan and the UAE. I don't have new and blinding insights about the question that inevitably arises when I'm back in the States, about "What it's like to live there as a, you know, woman?" I suppose I used to be guilty of wondering the same thing, as if being female in the Middle East was some sort of separate category of "woman" from the rest of the world. Now, when people in the States ask me that woman-question, my answer usually involves a shrug and the observation that it's complicated to live anywhere, as anyone.
Nope, our chance meeting produced no brilliant insights, only the realisation that the walk cleared my head, as it usually does, and that the gift of a cookie went a long way towards melting the February in my soul. I wish I'd thought to ask S for the recipe.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi